Circumambulating

“There is no linear evolution; there is only circumambulation of the Self.” – Carl Jung

Ever since that portentous moment when man first developed self-consciousness, he has been creating models to understand both the world and himself. Whether it be Ancient Egypt, Greece, or India, the Middle Ages or the Modern Era, whether simple or elaborate, limited in scope or all-encompassing, it is by and through such mental constructs that we make sense of our life and our place in the universe. Ancient man saw his gods actively taking part in his everyday life and influencing events. In the European Middle Ages, man thought the Earth was the center of the universe and believed in an Unmoved Mover, a God that had created everything and placed man on the very top of the pyramid. In the Modern Era, we have created scientific, philosophical, historical, psychological, and hundreds of other constantly changing and evolving models to make sense of every aspect of our lives. As we move from one subject of study to another – as we move from economics to biology, from medicine to art, from psychology to physics, and so on – we unconsciously and rather effortlessly switch from using one model of understanding to another.

Yet these systems, all-encompassing though they are – each in its own domain – do not offer ready-made solutions to the problems of everyday life. By following Kant’s “categorical imperative,” for example, we may end up finding the solution to a big ethical dilemma. But there are no models of thought or behavior that will handily help us deal with a strange neighbor whose dog barks all night and does not allow us to sleep! Therefore, irrespective of whether we choose to adopt some or many models that have been handed to us throughout our education, at the end of the day, knowingly or unknowingly, all of us create our own systems of thought and modi operandi in order to deal with each specific situation in life.

With this in mind, while I was analyzing my own writings of the past two years in search of a model to understand what I have been doing, I realized that I was rather unconsciously involved in what Jungian psychology calls “circumambulation.” The word literally means walking in a circle around a sacred object. But Jung used it to denote something else: the approach of one’s center, the Self as he called it (with a capital “S”), through a process that is not linear – as quoted above. He used the image of the spiral, such as we see on the shell of a snail, to visualize the movement: One keeps moving towards the center from the circumference, coming nearer to it with every new circling. Other Jungian analysts have since used the metaphor of a spiral staircase that ascends while circumambulating an imaginary axis. This imagery suggests a never-ending process rather than one that ends at some center. Reaching the center suggests completion – the end of the process, some form of final achievement after which there is nothing left to do. I feel, however, that the process of circumambulating the Self, or any other subject for that matter, is ceaseless, and although we may approach the center with each circling, we never completely reach it. Our knowledge, understanding, even our wisdom, do not have an end. I think this latter conceptualization is more appropriate for the way I view my own path, and I feel that it also better describes what I have been doing. Therefore, I imagine my own Jungian spiral as being like an ascending staircase, or even like a metal spring: I move around on this spring and reexamine anew and from different angles the main themes of my life, each time delving a bit deeper while, ideally, simultaneously ascending the spiral.

As I now review my writings, I see that the most important (at least to me) fall into three categories: the essays dealing with our own personal growth, those exploring our relationships with others, and most importantly, the ones searching for the meaning and purpose of life. I think that these three themes are those that have benefited most from the process of circumambulation. Each time I have revisited them, I have created a “new model of understanding.” I would dare say that, in the past two years, I have been involved in the business of creating models for understanding different aspects of these three main themes. Today, this activity itself, through self-reflection, has given rise to yet another model: the model of how I see my own endeavor! And this is none other than the Jungian idea of circumambulation. By circumambulating these themes, I feel I was discovering some truths; yet these truths could not easily be discerned nor expressed in one single essay, nor exhausted by a single approach. Each subject slowly unveils its hidden secrets each time it is revisited from a new angle. It is this circumambulating that has deepened my own understanding of each subject and at the same time has allowed me to express verbally this understanding in a way that could be comprehensible to you. As my high school teacher used to say, “you only truly understand something if you can put it down clearly in writing.”

Of course, it is not only in my recent writings that I have been engaged in circumambulation. I have been circumambulating the center of the Self for two decades now. My writings of the past two years were as much an exposition of this personal circumambulation as they were a sharing with others of whatever I had churned from the two parallel journeys of my life: the one around the world, the other within my soul. Let me now examine my essays through this self-analytical angle today.

With regards to personal growth, while circumambulating the idea of conformity, I first wrote the essay But Everybody Does It. In it, I discussed the fear of leaving the crowd, the fear of failure, and even our natural propensity to be lazy (these were my own personal problems that I initially had to deal with in order to depart from my country!). A few months later, in the essay The Conscious Suffering of Development, I explored the default suffering inherent in development – that there is no easy path to personal growth. I explained why this “suffering” is not true suffering, because it is self-chosen, and ultimately it bears beautiful fruits that a posteriori justify the “suffering” – just as Christ’s Passion every Easter obtains meaning in the ensuing Resurrection. Then, in The Restless Tribe, I returned to the same overall theme, this time viewing it from the angle of our inherent restlessness that no conformity can ever satiate. Later, in Leaping Into the Unknown, I examined how our life progresses through those important leaps we take into the unknown every few years. In Stop Repeating and Start Creating!, I explored how all previous approaches are connected with our creativity and our uniqueness. Finally, I revisited these themes anew, rather mysteriously connecting them all in the more recent essay, Acting and Reacting. Now I see all actions as falling into two categories – acting and reacting. All previous circumambulating could now be summarized in four sentences: “Reacting is mechanical and automatic. Acting is mindful and purposeful. Reacting is easy. Acting is difficult.”

Next comes the second theme. I have written a number of essays on how we communicate, form connections, and bond with other human beings, not least because this was a constant preoccupation of mine during my travels when I interacted with tens of thousands of people around the world. The “foundational” essay here was the travel story Wilma from my book. In an unmistakably Jungian synchronicity, the essay also involves a spiral hurricane and a movement towards its center – I explain how I came to meet so many interesting unknown people and how I lived through a magical and extraordinary event. I then revisited the theme of how we end up forming friendships, this time exploring the attitude we ought to have in order to find extraordinary things in ordinary interactions so that we can turn them into Monumental Encounters. The theme of being open not just to people but to the world they inhabit was revisited almost a year later, in Parallel Universes, which helped expand my understanding of my world – my universe – by viewing it from within the worlds of others. But still, the idea of connections itself was not fully explored; new angles were to be discovered in Connections Are Forever and in People Are Waves – where the imagery of interacting waves was used to shed light on how we interact with others, and the meaning inherent in all transient encounters. Finally, in the previous Tuesday Letter, Overlapping Circles, I brought together all these ideas, synthesizing them into a new model with a new imagery: The spiral hurricane and galaxy of Wilma now became a circle, and our points of contact with others were imagined as being akin to overlapping circles.

But the subject that has preoccupied me most in thought (even if not in quantity of writings), and for which I had to invent strong and rather unorthodox imagery, was none other than the one most central in my life (and I believe in the lives of most of us): finding meaning in life. The very first letter, The Incompleteness of Man, set the field of exploration that all subsequent essays would circumambulate, each time presenting a “new model of the Self” (in a typically Jungian manner), a new way of viewing the totality of our life and its meaning. In Just For Me, I described a way that all of us may use to see the events of our lives as being created just for us. This was a strange angle on a grateful approach to life that I happened to use while I traveled. It helps us see a positive and beneficial aspect in everything that crosses our life’s-path. In the more recent King of Kings, the personal center was expanded to include all of you – you are all kings! When I realized that my life pertains to real or mythical lives and that it is a “resultant life” composed of lives I consciously or unconsciously “collect,” I felt that the image of The Eternal Ragpicker was the most appropriate to convey the idea. In this essay, our life was seen as consisting of a collection of lives we gather, rather than being a singular life with a historical narrative – as we tend to perceive it. In Time and Timing, I addressed how our seeming insignificance in the universe may be reversed: opposite the universe, or Time, there stands the human will, or Timing, which has the potentiality to transcend all limitations. As I wrote, “Timing is not just the great liberator from the little slaveries of everyday life. It does not only free us from Time; more importantly, it creates that part of our individual path in Time that does not belong to Time!”. In Heraclitus’s Unseen Waterfalls, I approached the concept of Change that is so central in our lives, while in At How Many Points Do You Touch Life? I proposed an “evaluating factor” of our lives: rather than thinking in terms of happiness or success, I proposed to examine where we touch life, since we are here to “experience Life” in all its limitless facets. In Living Transformer, a new image was created: “Ever since your first cry, you have been transforming everything that came your way. You have been grabbing every molecule of matter with your whole being and altering it – the wind, the sun, the sights, the sounds, the smells, but also the feelings and ideas that come to you from wherever. You are a moving, pulsating, living transformer-machine. The most perfect, the most efficient, the most advanced machine in the known universe.” In The Honey of the Shoeshiner, I proceeded to explore in detail one such transformation.

Finally, in the recent essay (or rather treatise!) Our Two Lives, I came full circle from The Incompleteness of Man, although hopefully on a higher point along the ever-ascending spiral staircase: whatever we do, at the end of the day we cannot escape our human nature that seeks to reconnect with its main highway in order to create, understand, find meaning in life. The “main highway,” or shall we properly say the Jungian center, calls us back. The nature of our incomplete nature is to search for completeness – another beloved Jungian term.

My main highway, as it seems, has been none other than this spiral along which I move, forever circumambulating the same themes, yet each time from different angles. Fifty essays and two years of circumambulating have been completed. I hereby vow to continue my work in the same indefatigable manner.

Thank you all for reading my writings and for being a member of the Restless Tribe!

© 2018 Nicos Hadjicostis